As one of the boys on HBO's Girls, Christopher Abbott's depiction of the emotionally immature Charlie has been one of the show's breakout performances. But as audiences discovered at SXSW, it's only a hint of what the actor is capable of. In Burma, his latest project, he plays Christian, an aspiring tortured novelist with an unusually complicated family life and the chemical refuges that self-destructive writers in their twenties are often drawn to. On the heels of the film's Special Jury Recognition award for its ensemble cast, Details caught up with the 27-year-old actor to talk about his experience at the festival, what Girls had meant for his career, and his first gig as a leading man.
DETAILS: Is this your first time at SXSW?
CHRISTOPHER ABBOT: It is, but it's not my first time in Austin. I like it here a lot... [and] the SXSW experience has been good. People hold film and all the arts here in a high regard, but there's a casualness to it that's very easy, which I dig a lot. It's unpretentious, but it's still important. I've been to other film festivals, but I think the laidback-ness to South-by is different, and that's a good thing. The reception [to Burma] has gone pretty well so far. The people that have seen it have come up to us and had really nice things to say. That's all you can ask for.
DETAILS: How did you get involved with Burma?
CHRISTOPHER ABBOT: [Director] Carlos [Puga] and I were friends before this, through a good friend of both of ours, Brady Corbet, who's an actor (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Melancholia), director, and writer. Carlos was writing the script for a little while, and then he came to a play that I was doing and I guess he liked it enough. [Laughs] We hung out, and he asked me to be a part of it. It was shot in 2011, at the end of the year.
DETAILS: What appealed to you about playing Christian?
CHRISTOPHER ABBOT: Aside from the fact that I very much enjoy working with friends and people that I know because there's kind of an open-table policy that sets in, it doesn't feel like a job. But [in] the script, there were so many nuggets in there, right down to little lines, that just made me want to do it. The last line is kind of a meta-comment on the film itself. I think it's really smart in that way, and unpretentious.
DETAILS: Christian is a pretty self-loathing guy, in a lot of ways. How did you bring that across?
CHRISTOPHER ABBOT: [There's] the competitiveness that he has with his brother because they're both trying to be writers. There are obvious things that happen when you're the older brother and your younger brother is kind of successing you. He is kind of self-loathing, but the thing that I like about him and tried to bring across is that he's very aware of it. It's not that he's dwelling in it. He's very aware of his bad qualities and he's trying to work them out, and while he's trying to work them out there are aspects he hates himself for.
DETAILS: He's also pretty self-destructive.
CHRISTOPHER ABBOT: I don't think you're human unless you go through some of that. Everyone goes through dark moments in their lives. Different people deal with it differently. The interesting thing is that all three of these siblings have gone through the same traumatic experience, but they've all come out in very different ways. The psychology of that I've always found interesting: It's the same experience, but how does it affect these three different people?
DETAILS: You told the New York Times last year that, in your household, TV and entertainment weren't important things. Did that affect your decision to become an actor?
CHRISTOPHER ABBOT: We just weren't a family that gathered around the TV. I grew up in a town where everyone was outside all the time. I was mostly in Connecticut; I spent a lot of time in Tennessee in the summers, but I was in Stamford, Connecticut. I loved movies growing up. I went to the movies with my uncle all the time. But being an actor? I didn't even think about it until I was about twenty years old. I took a class at the college I was at. I don't know why—I just wanted to take a class, and I kind of fell in love with it there.
DETAILS: You came to most people's attention through Girls. There, though, you're on the periphery. Had you been waiting for the chance to be a leading man?
CHRISTOPHER ABBOT: It was my first time being a lead in a film, but the way I approach things doesn't change whether it's a small role or a big role. It's really just about tracking. When it's a bigger role, you have a bigger arc to track. It just takes a little more concentration. When you have a smaller role, it takes a little concentration, and then you're done. As far as, like, a psychology to it—I don't try and get into some world or anything, because I feel like that can be dangerous. You become not-present. I wait until we start actually doing the scene before I start to find the world that it's in.
DETAILS: Has Girls increased your opportunities to do other things?
CHRISTOPHER ABBOT: You know, it's hard to tell. I think so, but... the show is still new. I know a lot of people have seen it, but I think people are still getting on to watching it. It definitely has a vivaciousness to what it's putting out.
DETAILS: You've got another feature in the works. What can you tell us about The Sleepwalker?
CHRISTOPHER ABBOT: That's another film that I did with a very good friend of mine, [director] Mona Fasvold. She and her husband were the first people I met in New York. I went to school with her. It's a Norwegian co-production, which she co-wrote with Brady Corbet. I'm extremely excited about that film. It revolves around these two sisters who have been estranged for a while. I'm the younger sister's boyfriend, and we're working on this house. It's a very beautiful and eloquent film. [When you're] working with your friends you feel more comfortable to experiment and try things. If we do a take, I'm not afraid to speak up. It's little things like that that make it pretty special. It's one of the most beautiful things in the world, to go off and make a film. At the heart of it, making a film—it's pretend. It's a silly thing to do. But it can be important, and to have that experience with people you love is one of the best things you can do.
DETAILS: Who do you admire?
CHRISTOPHER ABBOT: Will Patton. He works with Kelly Reichardt a lot. I think he's very special. I think he does something very unique. There are so many. Tom Hardy is incredible. I don't know how to name them all. He's one of my best friends, but I think Brady Corbet is really incredible. He made a film called Simon Killer that comes out through IFC in April, and his performance in that is remarkable. It really is. It's one of the best young male performances I've ever seen.
DETAILS: Are you inspired when your contemporaries do great things, or are you competitive?
CHRISTOPHER ABBOT: I'm actually at a point now where I'm not competitive in that way at all. I used to be competitive. I feel like I can admit that now. I get very inspired by it. It makes me want to do it again, because sometimes you get down on acting. But I think a lot of my contemporaries, Brady especially, make me want to do it. Losing competitiveness doesn't mean you lose drive. It's important to make that distinction.
—Dan Solomon (@dansolomon)